It was supposed to be a harmless liaison, starting as it sometimes did: an attractive profile on a gay site, a few messages about nothing much at all, an exchange of photos, and an agreement to meet.
Sergei, 38, surname withheld, says he felt something wasn’t quite right about his date when they met in Shabolovka in Moscow’s southeastern suburbs. But it was only when the pair came home, entered the flat, and two assailants jumped out from behind the curtains that he started to realise how badly wrong things had gone.
The men announced to Sergei that his date was, in fact, a minor – even though his profile and appearance suggested he was at least 20. The attackers gave their victim a frightening ultimatum: “20,000 rubles (£250) or be outed as a poof and reported as a paedophile.”
Sergei was lucky that a 20-year army career meant he could stand up to the men physically. After an hour, he managed to persuade them to go outside so he could try to get money from a cashpoint. From there, he ran.
His story is one of several crimes committed against gay men in Moscow over the last month.
The Independent was able to speak to three of the targeted men. They suggested that gangs operating in the capital had identified gay men as easy – and silent – victims.
The mechanism is almost always the same. Handsome young men entrap unwitting victims on dating apps and other gay sites. They lure victims to an apartment, where several other gang members are waiting. The assailants film their victim, extort money and threaten them with outing or worse. Usually, the victims pay up for a quiet life. On the occasions that they don’t, things can end brutally.
While an unwelcome reminder of the difficulties of being gay in Russia, these incidents are not an entirely new phenomenon — or even the worst examples of homophobia.
Chechnya aside, the peak of anti-gay violence in Russia came about four years ago, when groups led by the nationalist Maxim Martsinkevich (aka “The Hatchet”) entrapped, beat and humiliated dozens of gay men on camera. Martsinkevich and his “Occupy Pedophilia” gang operated on the heels of the Kremlin’s 2013 infamous anti-gay law.
But Martsinkevich and his crew were always less concerned with money than with serving a warped ideology.
Activists say the vast majority of the more recent attacks have been economic in their aims.
That does not mean there have not been victims of violence. On several occasions, young men have been found in pools of blood following apparent robbery attempts, and without obvious signs of forced entry.
But today’s gangs do tend to be less violent, and instead use the taboo of homosexuality in society to keep the crimes as hidden as possible.
It’s an effective enough strategy, says Igor Kochetkov, the head of the Russian LGBT Network, a prominent advocacy group.
“People are reluctant to go to the police because they don’t want to reveal their orientation,” he says. “And the regular homophobic statements from officials don’t exactly encourage them.”
The Russian court system is not set up to help them, the activist says. When the odd case does reach court, it is usually processed as hooliganism or robbery; the hate element is never included as an aggravating factor. When Martsinkevich was finally arrested and jailed in late 2014, for example, it was for a racist video. No mention was made of the anti-gay aspects of his extremism.
“When it’s clear homophobic crimes are at play, such as what happened in Chechnya, the state does everything to avoid prosecution,” says Kochetkov.
According to Andrei Petrov, programme director of the LGBT+ advocacy group Stimul, a lack of successful prosecutions is allowing the problem of date extortion to become more widespread.
In a survey conducted by his organisation in 2018, one in five members of the LGBT+ community reported that they had been victims of such hate crimes. Only a similar percentage report the crimes to police, and even fewer are properly investigated.
Given the lack of progress in Russian courts, Stimul has decided to try their luck with the European Court of Human Rights.
Their test case, which dates from 2017, follows the familiar pattern. The victim, Yevgeny, 39, surname withheld, answered a profile on a love.mail.ru, a well-known dating site. He sent his picture; the other party sent his, and the pair agreed to meet by a block of flats in Moscow’s suburbs. Again, there were warning signs. The date said his name was Dima in messages, but introduced himself as Danila. But regardless, Yevgeny agreed to go upstairs to the flat.
There, a gang of eight men were waiting. They made sure Yevgeny’s quick date instead ended in a heavy beating, a request for money, and a threat to call the police for “paedophilia”.
Eventually, Yevgeny plucked up the courage to report the crime to the police. But since then, two years have passed without progress, with investigators refusing to open a criminal investigation.
“I believe the police were covering them up,” Yevgeny says. “I’ve no doubt the guys think they are completely untouchable.”
Activists and victims allege the Russian government’s own “homophobia” has fuelled the extortion business.
“The reason why these guys are getting away with it is because they are on the same side,” says Sergei. “One thing gives birth to another. They know they are doing the state’s work.”
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